US Relative Decline and the Korean Alliance (1): Cultural Distance


Part two is here.

On Monday, I put up the wisecracking version of the problems in the US-Korean alliance. I took some flak in the comments, and not everything I wrote is necessarily my own opinion. My own sense is that the US-Korean alliance is a net gain for liberalism globally, and I therefore support it. It definitely helps Korean security, although its national security benefit to the US is less clear after the Cold War. The alliance helps stabilize Asia at a time of rapid Chinese growth and NK bad behavior. While that most benefits East Asia, it does have some flow-down benefits for the US. I thought President Lee’s decision to visit Detroit and wear a Tiger’s baseball cap was a great, very sensitive move – an unexpected, heartfelt outreach to the part of American most beaten down by trade with Asia. (I’m from Cleveland, so I was genuinely touched; I wonder if a Chinese or Japanese leader would ever do something like that.) I really like Lee more and more.

Broadly speaking, I hope the US can help Korea in its tough security dilemma, while I do think Korea needs to spend a lot more on defense and carry more of the load. (America’s too broke, and it is firstly their war.) I don’t think Koreans realize (or don’t want to realize) though, that Korea is and probably always will be a middle power, that Korean security is not as central to the US as it once was, and that a lot of America’s commitment to Korea is ideological, not substantive or tribal. America’s commitment to Britain, Canada, or Israel is informed not just by national interest, but by a genuinely tribal sense of ‘we-ness.’ We look at them, and we see ourselves in religion, language, history, and race. This is most evident among the tea-partiers; just watch the GOP debates, where fealty to Israel is practically an ideological requirement, because so much of the US Right sees as Israel as a ‘Judeo-Christian’ extension of the US in the struggle against Islamism. I don’t think such a cultural bond exists between the US and Korea. Americans just don’t know that much about Korea (again, language acquisition is a good marker) and don’t obsess about it the way we do the Middle East. Instead, we look at Korea, and we see ideology – a democracy battling the axis of evil. This is why neocons who don’t know anything about Korea or Asia are nonetheless super-hawks on NK. Any US interest in provoking and defeating NK is more about right-wing ideology than any on-the-ground knowledge of Korea; how many Americans do a junior-year aboard here? Again, just listen to the GOP presidential debates. That may conveniently overlap the preferences of the SK right, but that is not cultural knowledge. It is post-9/11 semi-imperial, neocon ideology.

So the original faux-essay was trying to think of what a Korean foreign policy-type might really like to tell the Americans. In my experience here, Koreans, broadly speaking, are quite disappointed at how little the US knows and cares about Korea (neocon ideological commitment to SK is not the same as cultural knowledge), are increasingly worried about US relative decline, convinced the war on terror was a quixotic catastrophe, and crave global respect and attention as a G-20 member. I was trying to capture that.

In passing I would like thank Marmot’s Hole, Koreabridge, BusanHaps, and Ask a Korean for linking/reposting that post. My traffic exploded, and I learned that this essay was “quite possibly the most ridiculous, least informed, and mind-bogglingly ignorant claim ever typed on his hopelessly silly little blog.” Got it, W. So here is a more serious version. In short, while Koreans remain strongly committed, the US ‘pillar’ is showing cracks because the US is so overextended now.

President Lee’s speech before the US Congress represents a high point in the Korean relationship with the US. Foreign heads of state rarely address the US legislature, and a strong bond with the US is an important benchmark in the ‘global Korea’ campaign of the Lee administration. Lee and Obama enjoy a good personal rapport, and Americans appreciate Korean fealty after a decade of turbulence with European and Middle Eastern allies. But there are cracks, primarily on the American side, of which Korea should be aware. Last month, Chung-in Moon aptly lamented “our (Korea’s) cash strapped ally”: Koreans, enamored with learning English and studying in the US, are missing the gradual decline of US power and the debilitating turbulence of its domestic politics.

The remainder will be posted on Tuesday.


NB: Here is some further response to BusanHaps:

Thank you all for reading. I should note that the essay
above was intended to be as satiric as well as substantive. I was trying to put
myself in the shoes of a Korean policy-maker being very honest with the US
Congress, but these are not all necessarily my own opinion. Instead I tried to
distill what I have heard and learned here teaching students and attending
conferences for a few years. For example, I don’t actually think the GWoT was
about chasing ghosts around the ME, but I’ve heard that critique from Koreans
worried that the US is missing the rise of Asia.

In response to the comments here:

I do think the Tea Party is a global
embarrassment. If you were a non-white, non-Christian ally of the US (Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Korea) and you saw a good chunk of white, Christian middle-America
deride the first black president as a foreign imposter, Muslim, socialist, non-citizen
usurper, etc., what would you think? Please recall just how extreme the
language was – Beck claimed that ObamaCare was the beginning of the Fourth
Reich. And I did in fact have students asking me about this in fairly
incredulous tones.

I don’t think America’s relationship with Israel
is about oil. Our relationship with the GCC and Iraq is, but the tight bond with
Israel is more about the cultural panic on the US right over Islam. Israel has
no oil, and I see no leverage for the US over GCC/OPEC exporters coming from
the alliance. In fact, probably the opposite. Instead, watch the current GOP
debates where any criticism of Israel is simply taboo, and once again the
Middle East and Islamism dominate what little discussion of foreign policy
there is. The relationship with Israel is far beyond interest (oil) or even
values (liberal democracy). It is tribal (religion and fear of Islam).

Finally there is a lot of evidence that the US
in decline, and empirically, it is indisputable that the US is in relative
decline. America’s share of global GDP in 1945 was 52%; today it is 25%. The
data in the essay above still stands: continuous war for a decade, $1.5T budget
deficit, $10T in debt, rapid Chinese growth. I don’t think this means the US is
going to implode, or that the alliance with Korea will break, but it clearly
raises the pressure and reduces America’s ability to dictate terms. At some
point, the US will almost certainly have to cut defense, and commitments to
wealthy allies, like Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy will be tempting choices.

Thank you again for reading.

2 thoughts on “US Relative Decline and the Korean Alliance (1): Cultural Distance

  1. Pingback: US Relative Decline & Korea (2): What is US National Interest in Korea? « Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: Foreign Policy of the GOP Debates (1): We couldn’t care less @ Foreigners « Asian Security Blog

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